Hurry, damn, it. They’re coming. In seconds a thousand clan hooves will be pounding up to Little Westhold!
Merreth looks up sharply and peers along the road. No clan. Of course, if they were on the road there’d be no need to bait them here. Save for a rare breeze whispering through the tree line everything is quiet.
Bloody over-active imagination. Scowling, she tugs at the buckles holding the saddlebags in place. They’re snugged tight, biting into the belt holes, and her fingers slip as she pulls at them. She works the last one free, rips the bags off the courier mount and tosses them aside. Can she discard anything else to lighten the load? The banner harness? No. Why waste any more time?
She unsnaps the lead rope from the bridle, swings up into the saddle and urges the sleek bay out onto the road. It’s not far to Charadell’s pavilion and she ignores the temptation to knee her mount into a gallop. She’ll need the bay fresh for what she has in mind.
The deserted encampment is eerie and despite the heat Merreth shivers when she dismounts and ties off her horse. The buildings of Little Westhold are only a few hundred feet away and they’re packed with Totlenn’s and Arric’s men, but the illusion of complete abandonment makes Merreth skittish.
Inside the pavilion she slashes the bindings holding the clan standard to the tent pole. She fingers the simple wooden staff and coarse horsetail at its end. “Doesn’t look like much,” she mutters. How did it really come to wind up in Charadell’s pavilion? Totlenn had one story, Charadell another. Merreth hopes Totlenn’s is the truth. Because, she thinks, I’ve wagered everything – everyone – on him, his character.
She’s out of the tent and into the saddle, with the standard secured in the banner harness, before she can give herself time to think. She canters down the road past stout wooden cottages filled with watching eyes and pointed weapons, her back twitching. A single arrow from some brigand who valued her leathers more than her mark would drop her. Her life, and the lives of those depending on her, would be just so much blood in the dust.
It takes her about twenty minutes to cover the distance to the crossroads. The run down tavern, doors and shutters swinging open, squats behind a low, sagging wooden fence. Little reason to secure the building when the clan would likely burn it. The road leading into the steppe is deserted, the armoury and Totlenn’s camp are visible in the distance. Her leathers creak as she shifts in the saddle, scanning the horizon. There’s no wind, just heat, sweat, and the odd fly. This is where the clan will turn north to Little Westhold, where I must make sure they turn north, she thinks. All of them.
Merreth’s horse rears, screaming, when an arrow punches into its neck with a meaty thunk.
“Shit!” She grips the saddle horn, clamping her knees tight to keep from falling backwards. A mounted figure in dirt-brown trousers and vest charges forward, bow in hand.
Damn, he’s close! Her horse lurches forward and rolls on to its side, legs kicking, chest heaving like a bellows. Merreth is flung out of her saddle and sprawls into the dirt, grass stubble spearing her cheek. She lies frozen, gasping, hat askew half over her face, her right arm growing numb from its awkward position half under her. Drumming hooves draw close, then stop. The clansman’s feet hit the ground with a thud.
Dear Goddess, let him think I’m already dead! One sword thrust to make sure, and she’d be just another corpse baking under the sun. Her mount’s gurgling snorts are cut short.
Merreth slits open one eye. The clansman brushes aside lank, sweat-sheened hair and straightens up, sheathing his belt dagger. He strides over to her as she shuts her eye.
She tenses. A brutal kick hammers her numbed arm. No pain, just faint pins and needles. There’s a grunt and something warm and wet spatters against her cheek. Another grunt and the clansman’s footsteps recede.
She risks opening her eye again. Her sight is blurry with sweat and she blinks several times, cursing silently.
He’s squatting down, tugging at the clan standard pinned beneath the dead courier mount. Her hand inches towards her belt dirk. Slowly, slowly. Wait, wait, wait, until the last second. He might see her move. Now!
She grabs the dirk and scrambles upright, but he’s on her like a felled tree, knocking her knife away, straddling her, whipping his blade towards her face.
Merreth grabs his wrist, but his blade inches towards her eye, his other hand locking around her neck. He grunts with effort, watching her struggle with cold black eyes, yellow teeth grinning through cracked lips.
She flails about for her dropped blade, a rock, anything! Dear Goddess, she was going to die here! Her hand closes around a spikey tuft of dried grass stalks, rips it out and slams it into his eye. He flinches backwards, a string a gibberish pouring from his mouth.
Merreth heave sideways with her hips, plucks her boot dirk free and buries it to the hilt in his side, then rips it out plunges it in again, and again, screaming “Fuck off!”
Dropping his knife, the clansman clamps her hand over the crimson wound and sags off her. Merreth pushes herself to her knees, and brings her knife down into his neck, two-handed, then pulls the blade free. Blood pumps from the wound, spattering over the dry grass, soaking into the ground. He shudders once, then lies still.
“Bastard,” she grunts. “Last fucking time you spit in my face.” She sits there, arms shaking with exertion and relief, dully aware she should get moving.
The ferry gently bumps against the thick wooden pilings, the pulleys on the overhead guide rope squealing to a stop.
The dorrymen on the pier gape as they take in a ferry barge packed with children, mothers, and dismounted nobles. “Throw us a line there,” one calls.
Not their usual load, thinks Samretta as the fence guard is removed and a small apron lowered onto the pier.
Some of the nobles jostle their way forward to disembark while the children and commoner women – some holding infants – hang back wearing worried expressions.
Samretta grimaces. The last time she set foot on this side of the river she’d been reminded of what was a stake – personally, as if there was any need for that. Those holding her son just couldn’t help themselves from twisting the knife. She forces herself to focus on the present. Her gaze sweeps up from the pier over the shops and warehouses that march up the hill into the heart of Westhold proper, where the more prosperous inns and merchant houses are found. Late afternoon shadows chase each other up streets and buildings. Down on the piers, factors, merchants, stevedores, and labourers bustle about their business. Several of the High Mistress’s mounted couriers are present at the ferry pier, but no nobles.
“Well come on,” says Ashttia, pushing her way to the front of the ferry. “What are you waiting for?”
“Shouldn’t we make some arrangements for the children?” asks Samretta. “They’ve nowhere to go, and you can see they’re frightened.” She glances back at the ferry to see some of the nobles shepherding the children forward. One of them hoists a small boy onto her shoulders. How quickly the west bank changes some people, she thinks.
“Why? I – we’ve already left our mounts on the other bank to make room for them.” Ashttia rubs her sore leg and sighs before stepping onto the pier. “Yes, yes, I suppose we should.”
“Lady Ashttia, Lady Ashttia!” Eenidd bulls his way up to them through the throng of children. “Bloody Merreth, doesn’t give a single thought to what’s to happen to the Temple’s servants on this side of the river.”
“I think she was more worried about keeping the children out of harm’s way,” Samretta snaps.
“Saddling us with these urchins is just her petty revenge for perceived slights,” says Eenidd. He produces a handkerchief from his bag and mops his brow.
“Any revenge of Merreth’s would come at the end of her sword and there would be absolutely nothing petty about it.”
Eenidd glowers at Samretta while wringing out his handkerchief with short, jerky twists.
“Quite,” says Ashttia. “I’ll forgive that outburst, Lady Samretta, as I know you’re tired and have witnessed intolerable events over the last several days.” She moves to the side of the pier and motions Samretta to follow. “However,” she continues in a low voice, “I am not Domina Charadell. From now on I’ll expect deference, a civil tongue, and comportment befitting a noble who has the best interests of the Watch at heart. Such comportment includes proper respect paid to the Temple’s representatives. Do you understand me?”
“Yes,” Samretta spits out. Fat little toad, Eenidd, she thinks. Merreth and I are of one mind when it comes to you and your ilk.
Eenidd stuffs this handkerchief away. “Lady Ashttia, there’s no transportation here. None at all. Are the Temple’s servants supposed to walk?”
“Transportation would be your concern, I should think, Eenidd,” says Ashttia. “If I recall, you were intent on arriving here this afternoon. The current unpleasantness hasn’t changed that. Surely it was incumbent upon the Temple to make the appropriate arrangements?”
“We hadn’t anticipated arriving this early,” says Eenidd. He waves over a tall, black-haired, powerfully built templeman. After their hurried conversation Eenidd gestures at the nearby couriers. “One of them can be dispatched to the Ridgeway Temple to fetch carriages for us.”
“I’m afraid not. I require them all for my purposes.”
“Public coaches service the dock area,” says Samretta. “Could you not make use of them?”
“Lady Samretta, that would be unseemly.”
The women and children stream off the ferry, driven on by the impatient dorrymen’s barked orders. They gather on the roadside, the women trying to keep the children from wandering out of sight. Nobles cluster about by Ashttia, awaiting instructions.
Eenidd scowls up the road towards Westhold proper. “It will be at least a half hour before the Temple carriages arrive. We are tired and thirsty.”
“Better tired and thirsty over here, than dead over there,” says Samretta.
“We’re all well aware of the merits of our current location, Lady Samretta,” says Ashttia. “While you’re waiting, Eenidd, you can be planning for the needs and accommodations of these commoners.”
“Templemen lie outside your authority, Lady Ashttia. We’ve spoken of this before,” says Eenidd. “As much as I sympathize with their plight, the whelps and their mothers are not my responsibility.”
The nobles overhear Eenidd, frown, and mutter amongst themselves.
Ashttia glares at them. “Be silent!” She turns back to Eenidd and motions him to her side, keeping her voice low so only Samretta and Eenidd can hear it. “Truth. I cannot command you. Consider this though, Templeman. Lady Merreth ordered those children aboard the ferry along with you. If she lives through this afternoon, you can explain to her why you didn’t take pity on these poor waifs, once she’d arranged to shepherd them out of harm’s way.”
“That sounds very much like a threat, Lady Ashttia,” says Eenidd. There’s an easy smile on his face that doesn’t reach his eyes.
“I merely foresee that should Lady Merreth survive, you and she will likely cross paths at some point,” says Ashttia. “The topic may come up in conversation. Something to keep in mind, wouldn’t you say? Lady Samretta, if you would accompany me? We need to dispatch some couriers.”
They leave a grim Eenidd behind and stride to the waiting couriers. “The High Mistress must be informed of the day’s … events,” says Ashttia. “We’ll need mounts for ourselves and our sisters, of course, and I’ll dispatch one of the couriers to the new encampments. The lead elements should be arriving any time now. I’ll send someone to fetch Lady Tiandraa. We’ll meet her at the south ferry.” She frowns. “None of their horses will be fresh, curse it.”
“You’ve decided to aid Merreth?” asks Samretta. Please, dear Goddess, let her say ‘no’. I’ve no right to ask, but please let her answer be ‘no’. That way I won’t have to do anything. I won’t be expected to do anything.
“Not yet. It’s merely prudent to be in a position to do so should I decide to.”
Samretta nods, uncertain whether the answer makes her feel better or worse.
“Janget’s dead?” asks Gytega. “Tell me.”
The scout nods, scratching an itch under his armpit. “Down by where their road forks north and south. Laid out on his back.”
“By who’s hand?” asks Ostinik. “Not by one of these.” He waves at the bodies of the farmer and his wife.
“I think not, Shield-Arm.” The scout’s face goes hard, his jaw working. “His manhood was cut away and shoved in his mouth.”
“Who …” starts Ostinik.
“One who’s strayed far from honor’s path,” snarls Gytega. “If they had ever followed it in the first place.” He motions a warrior over. “Go tell the leaders. Gather our warriors. The clan will make its fist here. Have them retrieve as many spent arrows as possible.”
The warrior and two others gallop off.
The scout unties his water-skin and takes a small sip. “There’s more,” he says.
“Speak of it,” says Gytega. His face is carved from rock.
“Mother Earth tells of a struggle. Blood splashes, dirt kicked up. Two sets of boot prints. A horse nearby, dead by a clan arrow and a slit throat. Janget’s mount is missing.” He pauses, weighing his words. “I believe Janget found someone he thought he could strike down with little effort. He was young and a bit reckless.”
“And you are not?” snaps Ostinik. He liked the young scout and his death is worrisome. They’ve pushed farther into dirt-scratcher land than ever before. We should have stayed on the steppe, he thinks. I don’t like the smell of this.
“No, Shield-Arm. I’m careful and quick.”
“What else has your care uncovered for us?” asks Gytega.
“The south road snakes close to the great river, flanked by trees. There’s little in that direction. A great camp, empty, the field around it grazed.”
A great camp, thinks Ostinik, now deserted. Could that have been from where one of the other dirt-scratcher columns had come? “Nothing else? None of their wretched wooden yurts? None of stone like the great southern cities?”
The scout shakes his head. “The road goes past the camp but I could not see any of what you speak, even in the distance. Just rows and rows of their crops.”
“And to the north?”
“Their dwellings begin to spring up along the river tree-line. I did not ride far in that direction after finding Janget, but there looks to be more in the distance. I saw no one save for the odd dirt-scratcher poking his head out of his home.” The scout spits into the dirt. “They are fearful. They pop back inside like ground squirrels down their holes.”
Gytega nods. “Take two warriors. Prepare to lead the clan back down the road.” He turns to Ostinik. “We go north. We’ll burn them out of their homes, kill all who resist. The ones who plant crops will be easy to cow after.”
The clan warriors gather around them, calling to each other in excitement, their mounts snorting and pawing the ground, as if anxious to seek out more of the clan’s enemies. Ostinik estimates at least three hundred warriors have drawn up around them, with more arriving each second. He frowns at the shadows springing up from their hooves. The days are long this close to the solstice, but even so they have little time to waste. “If we must do this, we’d best be about it, Clan-Father,” he says, working the finger bones in his bracelet back and forth.
“Clan-Father?” Gytega’s eyes narrow. “You only call me that when you’re worried. What gnaws at you now, old man?”
Ostinik response is interrupted by a shout.
The scout stands on his saddle, pointing east.
Ostinik rises in his stirrups and peers into the distance, grunting frustration. His eyes are not what they used to be.
Gytega removes a small bundle tied with cord from his saddle bag. He takes care to unwrap two small colourless glass discs. Standing in his stirrups, he holds them up, one in front of the other and squints through the closer one, moving the farther one back and forth.
The seeing glasses, thinks Ostinik, traded for at great cost far to the south. The clan had only the pair the Clan Father carried.
Gytega curses, then motions Ostinik closer with a jerk of his head, and hands him the two glass discs without a word. “Tell me what you see, old friend.”
Ostinik takes the discs gingerly and holds them out in front of his face.
The distant fields blur in and out of focus as Ostinik moves the glasses closer to each other then farther away. The fields, road, fences, and some sort of square wooden yurt seem to leap towards him. After a few seconds he steadies his hands and peers through the discs.
There! A figure astride a horse, ant-like in size but unmistakably a dirt-scratcher woman wearing a broad-brimmed hat and night-black leather. He sucks in his breath. “Sky-Father,” he murmurs. All the others, those they’d killed, those they’d taken, those who’d run – they’d all worn leathers of a deep brown colour. Not this one. He squints. Black! She has something in her hand, a lance, or pole, that she waves over her head. “Our standard,” he mutters.
“She taunts us.”
Ostinik returns the discs to Gytega. “Clan-Father, we should think on this with care.”
Gytega smiles. “We should, and with clear heads. Let’s not cloud our minds with the old Shaman’s tales of black-skinned demons. She’s just one of their women in black leather.”
“The old tales aside, she beckons to us with our own standard, Gytega” Confidence flows through Ostinik at the sight of Clan warriors standing silent, arrayed on either side of him and Gytega in a long double line. They wait with the patience of the plains for the Clan-Father to command them. “They’re little skilled in setting snares though, A blind man can see this is an invitation to a trap.”
“If it’s a trap it’s been well-baited,” says Gytega. “We crushed their riders, seven hundred at least, taken a score of them captive, and Agaric is finishing another four hundred of their armoured mud-footed men. Would they sacrifice so much to draw us in?”
“I cannot say what they planned,” says Ostinik.
Gytega leans back in his saddle and stretches. “She is too far to see us for who we are. We’d have seen the sun’s flash on seeing glasses had she possessed them.” He rubs his jaw. “Perhaps she thinks to welcome the triumphant return of the dirt-scratchers we’ve sent back to Mother-Earth.” His lips skin back in a wolfish grin. “We can ask her when she’s been caught.”
“Gytega …” begins Ostinik.
“We’ll take care, old friend,” says Gytega, “but time grows short and I have decided.” He snaps out a series of orders. The clan lines shift and ripple, then break into a trot down the road and on either side, a wall of horseflesh, men, and weapons.
Damn it, this bloody thing is heavy! Merreth lowers the clan standard and once more curses the savage who put down her mount. She’d give a lot for a banner harness on this horse. Come to that, she’d give a lot for a new horse. This one stank of meat beginning to turn. Where was that stench coming from? It seemed to float right up from the saddle!
There’s a thin brown smear on the horizon where the western road disappeared into the distance. She’s sure it hadn’t been there when she’d hidden herself against the possibility of another clan scout.
She’d smiled while watching the second scout pick over the corpse she’d left mutilated in the road. After a brief examination of the surrounding area he’d mounted and ridden north, returning after a few moments, lashing his mount as if being chased by wolves. All to the good, she had thought. Otherwise she had no idea what she would have done to lure the clan forward, short of riding up to them herself.
Merreth hoists the clan standard skyward again. Come on! Show me that you’ve seen me and your precious, fly-ridden horsetail on a stick. I don’t want to be stuck out here all bloody afternoon, she thinks. She sighs and lowers the standard. Her nose itches, she’s thirsty, and she’s bathed in sweat.
She balances the standard across her mount’s shoulders and reaches for what looks to be a water-skin. She unties it, sniffs, and takes a small swallow. Warm, but good. She ties off the water skin, glances westward and nearly drops it in surprise.
“Oh fuck!” The ‘smear’ is now a line of men on horseback. Still far away, but moving fast and closing the distance at a frightening pace.
Merreth tosses the water skin aside and grabs the clan standard in her right hand. She wheels her mount around and digs in her heels. “Got your bloody attention now,” she mutters.
More Lady Merreth
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